After repeated issues with transparency and responsibility, Gov. Scott Walker’s flagship job growth agency broke state laws by unsuccessfully tracking its money and illegally funding unapproved projects, according a state investigation released Wednesday.
The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s failure to properly monitor its financial transactions was the basis of state’s non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau review.
“WEDC must ensure accountability and transparency in its management of taxpayer funds,” State Auditor Joe Chrisman said in the report.
The LAB’s audit said the corporation’s policies to oversee its grants, loans and tax credits totaling more than $500 million were insufficient. It said WEDC awarded ineligible recipients for ineligible projects with amounts of money above dictated limits, including spending $1,789 on University of Wisconsin football tickets.
WEDC also failed to monitor spending for the entire 2011-12 fiscal year, according to the audit.
Joint Audit Committee Co-Chair Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, said in a statement Wednesday WEDC must take this audit seriously and resolve its inexcusable shortcomings now.
“This audit shows there is a significant disconnect between our expectations of WEDC and the reality of their performance with regard to transparency and accountability,” Cowles said.
Walker launched the public-private corporation two years ago as a replacement to the overburdened Department of Commerce for the sole purpose of spurring Wisconsin’s economy, according to Wisconsin Taxpayer Alliance President Todd Berry.
WEDC faced criticism after the federal government found 15 problems with the agency in September, and again after it lost track of $8 million worth of loans to 99 businesses in October.
WEDC Chief Operating Officer Ryan Murray said during an Assembly committee on Jobs, Economy and Mining meeting Wednesday he looks forward to a full discussion of the audit next Thursday.
However, he said his corporation’s executive team identified the issues pointed out in the LAB’s report eight months ago.
“The important thing is all the issues identified in that audit are either fixed or very nearly done being fixed. There is not a single issue that’s unaddressed,” Murray said. “We think the audit is a very good road map for us on how to improve.”
Despite the audit’s findings, Murray said legislators from both parties should believe creating jobs is essential for Wisconsin and should encourage WEDC to work toward that goal.
Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, said he finds it difficult to trust WEDC to take on new initiatives, such as managing a proposed venture capital investment bill, after all of these blunders.
“Based on this audit, I don’t have any confidence in WEDC,” Hulsey said. “They can’t manage the $80 million they had, according to the audit. If you’re giving them all this responsibility when they can barely run a two-car parade right now, that’s where my concern is.”
Berry said WEDC has worked to fix the issues identified in the LAB’s audit the passed three to five months and has removed personnel who caused these problems in the first place.
The audit was about well-known issues that have already passed, Berry added. He said it was done to settle WEDC’s infractions.
“It was good that they did an audit,” he said. “It was meant to settle some old issues and clean it up and move on. I think that is going to happen. If this kind of thing were to continue to happen, I think it would be quite a different discussion.”